The desire for certainty

The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion frequently used a quotation from Maurice Blanchot: ‘La réponse est le malheur de la question’ – ‘the answer is the misfortune or disease of curiosity – it kills it’. He was pointing to the tendency which he called ‘filling the empty space’ – filling it, that is, with answers or with knowing. In his view, it is in the ‘empty space’ of the present moment that a new thought, experience or discovery can take place. As the Zen saying goes: ‘if you don’t know why do you ask?’

Similarly Jacques Lacan the French analyst wrote about the need for ignorance and honesty and as scepticism as ‘holding the subjective position that one can know nothing.’

As religious fundamentalism demonstrates so well it is anxiety that tends to drive us all towards a desire for certainty – the need to have an answer, or if possible the answer.

On the spiritual direction course that I did there were a number of evangelical Christians who had become disillusioned with ‘certainty’ and felt let down; what had seemed so sure and upfront in their youth now seemed disappointingly naïve. The certainties that had been promised had not upheld them in times of trouble. They were searching for something different, something more nuanced and subtle with an element of not knowing; something that offered space for exploration and experience. When they had left their evangelical churches they had encountered a closing of ranks and hostility from those who held entrenched positions… they were seen as ‘lost sheep’ or worse.

The capacity to remain open to God, who is by definition unknowable, demands letting go of any sense of hubris – an insistence on being right, or owning the truth. It needs self-awareness and self-development, a monitoring of awareness and openness to the truth and the authentic part of oneself. This is being present in the moment, empty of predetermined thoughts and beliefs – hopefully open to what might or might not happen.

How hard it is, and for all of us, whether it is in spiritual practice or in therapeutic work, to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity in the present moment. After all who doesn’t like to remain in control? Practising waiting, patience, passivity, observing, imagination, detachment, disinterest, trust, and humility are not seen as behaviours to be encouraged in contemporary life where the aim is for speedy results and positive outcomes. Both contemplation and analytic psychotherapy are then by definition and in practice deeply and disturbingly counter cultural.